SEVENTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
James 3:13—4:3, 7-8a
PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God, our teacher and guide, you draw us to yourself and welcome us as beloved children. Help us to lay aside all envy and selfish ambition, that we may walk in your ways of wisdom and understanding as servants of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
Sometimes it seems to me that our society is waging a relentless war on childhood. It seems as though we view childhood with contempt. The sooner our children can get over that wretched and unprofitable stage in their little lives and start getting serious, the better. A decade ago I would never have associated the term “SAT” with “kindergarten.” Now such standardized testing is normal procedure and five year olds are under intense pressure to perform well for the sake of their futures. (I suspect, however, that the push for their success has more to do with retaining school funding than with any learning advantage for the children.) In some parts of the country, the quest for the Ivy League begins with pre-school. What must it be like for a four year old to know that her destiny rides on how quickly she can get Mr. Potato Head put together correctly?
As if pushing preschoolers into the rat race were not bad enough, our children are immersed into a world of sexualized violence at increasingly earlier ages. Girls as young as ten are absorbing through entertainment media and advertising the message that their value as persons is tied to their sexual desirability by men. They are being encouraged to dress and act like sex objects by commercial interests whose definition of female beauty is based on airbrushed models lacking acne, braces and body fat. In short, the beauty to which our girls are told to aspire does not exist in the real world. Any wonder they are starving, cutting and otherwise punishing their bodies for failing to meet this other-worldly standard? Equally disturbing are the narrow models of masculinity imposed on our boys that glorify aggressiveness, male dominance over women and ruthless competitiveness. Though I do believe many teachers and school programs are working hard to address these damaging trends, given the commercial incentives for keeping them alive, their efforts often amount to little more than whispers in a hurricane.
And these are the children we love; the ones who have parents that care about them; the ones we view as having the “good life.” Their situation is perhaps enviable to the discarded kids floating around in overcrowded group homes, juvenile detention facilities and on the streets. If you compare the benefits afforded us seniors to those available to children through Medicaid, the differences are striking. I suspect this is in large part due to the fact that children don’t vote. Outside of our borders children are frequently tapped as a cheap source of labor and put to work in dangerous factories producing, among other things, the toys we buy for our own children. Then, of course, there are the refugee children found everywhere and wanted nowhere. Children, it seems, are flooding the market. In a late stage capitalist economy, that means they have no value.
According to Jesus, the valuation of children is the measure of one’s receptiveness to the reign of God. It is in the child, the most vulnerable member of our species, that the face of God is recognized. Our culture views children as little more than adults in progress, future laborers or commercial units of which we currently have more than we need. Consequently, we are blinded by our market driven society and so find ourselves incapable of recognizing God’s kingdom.
As disciples of Jesus, we are challenged to do the counter-cultural: put children first. In order to do that, however, we are required to challenge the foundational values of our economy, our political assumptions and our consumerist lifestyle. We are compelled to confront the sexist stereotypes and homophobic mindsets that put so many of our children at risk. Receiving children and valuing them above all others is perhaps the most radical challenge Jesus ever made. If there is any remaining doubt that Jesus was not speaking metaphorically last week when he called us to take up the cross and follow him, this Sunday’s gospel erases it once and for all.
The time is somewhere between 609 and 587 B.C.E. Jeremiah had spoken forcefully against the leadership of Judah accusing the royal establishment of idolatry, injustice and oppression. Moreover, as war loomed on the horizon for Judah against Babylon, Jeremiah prophesied the victory of Babylon. Such preaching, especially during a time when the nation faced imminent attack, was thought to be subversive and perhaps even treasonous. Jeremiah was seen as undermining the morale of the people, failing to support the troops and giving aid and comfort to the enemy. Jeremiah was a national security risk. That explains the assassination plot against him. We are not told whether the assassins are agents of the royal establishment or some ultra patriotic group of rival prophets. In either case, it is clear that Jeremiah is in danger and that this danger will only increase if he continues his preaching. So Jeremiah lets loose with a prayer lambasting God for leading him into this fix and crying out for vengeance against his persecutors.
Commentator Thomas Raitt says of this reading that it “is not up to the level of Christian faith, where at least the model is suffering in silence and with acceptance, and not a lot of complaining and invoking divine wrath on perceived enemies.” Raitt, Thomas M., “Jeremiah in the Lectionary,” Interpretation, Vol. 37, #2 (April 1983) p. 170. I am not convinced that suffering in silence and without complaint is the way of the one who cried out on the cross, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” To be sure, this notion is firmly embedded in Protestant piety, but that does not mean it comports with biblical faith, Christian or Jewish. The psalms, which formed the language of prayer for Jesus, are rich in prayers of lament. These prayers are, according to Professor Walter Brueggemann, sadly underrepresented in Christian worship. Our preference for more upbeat (and therefore more “Christian psalms”) is, in Brueggemann’s view, “less an evangelical defiance guided by faith, and much more a frightened, numb denial and deception that does not want to acknowledge or experience the disorientation of life.” Brueggemann, Walter, The Message of the Psalms, (c. 1984 by Augsburg Publishing House) p. 51.
Unlike gay and lesbian couples seeking only a government permit from a clerk obligated to supply it, Jeremiah’s enemies are not merely “perceived” (to use Raitt’s term). They are very real and seem intent on taking the prophet’s life. I have never received a credible threat to my life. The only attacks I have ever had to endure were verbal. Make no mistake, some of those were pretty brutal, but I was never in any fear of death or bodily injury. I am not sure how I would react under those circumstances, but I am quite sure I would not “suffer in silence.” Fortunately, the psalms of lament, such as Jeremiah’s words in our lesson, give us some pointers on how to deal with pain inflicted by hostile attacks.
First, Jeremiah owns his emotional response. He feels betrayed by God. God gave Jeremiah a message to proclaim and he proclaimed it to the people. It was not a pleasant message. Despite his claim that he was but a gentle lamb led to slaughter (vs. 19), I am sure Jeremiah knew full well that his words would not endear him to his people. He was told as much from the start. Jeremiah 1:8. But it is one thing to understand in the abstract that standing by one’s principles sometimes requires sacrifice. It is quite another actually to experience the loss of friendship, rejection by family and social ostracizing. Loneliness, anger and fear can twist your mind in all kinds of directions. Not surprisingly, Jeremiah would love to “see [God’s] vengeance upon [his enemies].” Vs. 20. Jeremiah brings his sense of betrayal and hatred of his enemies right to the thrown of God. Jeremiah understood, as we often do not, that God is perfectly OK with this.
Second, it is critical to realize that, however angry at his enemies Jeremiah might be and however much he might like to see them get their just desserts, he leaves the matter of retributive justice in God’s hands. While the prophet feels free to let God know what he thinks justice demands, he is aware that judgment finally rests with God alone. Human judgment is far too clouded by loyalty to nation, family and clan (to say nothing of self) to decide impartially matters of retribution. We are too blind to our own faults, too clouded by past injuries and rivalries that color our judgment and too limited in our knowledge too discern what justice requires in terms of punishment.
Third, like all prophets, Jeremiah stands squarely under the withering judgment he proclaims upon his people. He does not preach from the lofty heights of the moral high ground. He speaks rather as a member of the people. The only difference between Jeremiah and his fellows is that he, through the illumination of God’s word, can see the meaning in the gathering storm clouds that eludes the rest of his people. Jeremiah feels in his gut the terrible future that awaits his people:
My joy is gone, grief is upon me,
my heart is sick.
Hark, the cry of my poor people
from far and wide in the land: ‘Is the Lord not in Zion?
Is her King not in her?’ (‘Why have they provoked me to anger with their images,
with their foreign idols?’) ‘
The harvest is past, the summer is ended,
and we are not saved.’
For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt,
I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me.
there no balm in Gilead?
there no physician there?
Why then has the health of my poor people
not been restored?
*O that my head were a spring of water,
and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night
for the slain of my poor people!
Jeremiah 8:18-9:1. It is hard to distinguish in this passage the voice of Jeremiah from the voice of the Lord. A prophet bears within his/her soul the anguish of God’s heart over the ruin of creation. Prayer is therefore also testimonial, bearing witness as much to God’s aching for reconciliation as the prophet’s agony in giving voice to that divine pain. That, I think, is what we mean when we sing, “I will hold your people in my heart.” “Here I am, Lord,” Evangelical Lutheran Worship, # 574.
This is one of several psalms attributed to King David and one of a few in which we are given the historical context of the psalm. According to its introduction, the psalm was uttered by David when he was a fugitive fleeing King Saul and was betrayed by the Ziphites among whom he was hiding. David narrowly escaped capture and certain death only because Saul was required to give up the chase to deal with an attack by the Philistines. The story is related at I Samuel 23:19-29. Most commentators doubt the accuracy of this and the other introductory notes to the Psalms. It is undisputed that they were attached very late in the formation of the Psalter. While the psalm does seem to fit the circumstances in which David found himself, the prayer is admittedly non-specific in detail such that it could also fit any number of other contexts. Still, it seems to me that one should not automatically discount the accuracy of the historical preface merely because it was a late addition to the Psalter. It could well be that such a preface was unnecessary in prior years because the origin of the psalm was generally known. That it was only recently attached to the psalm might reflect no more than that the memory of this connection was beginning to grow dim in the editor’s own time and s/he wanted to assure that it would be preserved for subsequent generations. However we might resolve the question of authorship and context, this psalm clearly speaks to our own age as much as to its own-whichever that might have been. For my general thoughts on Davidic authorship and the psalms, see my post of Sunday, April 14, 2013.
Stylistically, this psalm is a lament; a cry for help to God. As such, it contains certain characteristic elements:
- Initial Appeal to God, vss. 1-3.
- Portrayal of inward distress, vs. 1
- Expression of confidence, vss. 4-5
- Witness of praise to the community, vss. 6-7.
See Anderson, Bernard W., Out of the Depths, The Psalms Speak for us Today, (c. 1983 by Bernard W. Anderson, pub. by The Westminster Press) p. 97. Like Jeremiah in our previous lesson, the psalmist is threatened by enemies. We don’t know who these enemies are or why they are attacking the psalmist, but they are described as “ruthless” and they are seeking the psalmist’s life. Vs. 3. These enemies are not merely political rivals in a hotly contested election or contenders for professional advancement in the ruthless world of office politics. These enemies are threatening actual violence. They mean business. Small wonder the psalmist wants to see them punished with evil and put to an end.
At first blush, this psalm might seem not to reflect the attitude toward enemies we learn from Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus taught us to love our enemies and pray for our persecutors. Matthew 5:44. Yet while this is surely Jesus’ command (and the most important one at that), it often takes us human beings time to get there. When we have been hurt, we need to cry. We need to express that hurt and anger in language that sometimes isn’t very nice. Nothing is gained by putting on a false front, suppressing anger and pretending it isn’t there. The issue is not whether to express anger and hurt, but how and to whom. Like Jeremiah’s lament, the psalm illustrates that God is always open to hearing prayer-not only when it is filled with praise and thanksgiving, but also when it is heavy with anger, hurt and hatred.
I don’t know about you, but my religious upbringing did not make that very clear to me. Consequently, there were times when I felt too angry to pray, too hurt to worship and too filled with unworthy emotions to approach God. Of course, one is never too unclean, too mean, too petty or too sinful to come before God in prayer. The psalms give us language to expose the worst of all that we are in prayer. Only through such exposure is healing made possible. Being honest about anger is the first step toward seeing the enemy in a different light and learning eventually to love him or her.
James begins by asking the question, “Who is wise and understanding among you?” vs. 3:13. Perhaps we need to pause here and ask ourselves what wisdom and understanding is. If wisdom is nothing more than the accumulation of knowledge, then our generation is surely the wisest yet. Never in the history of the world has so much knowledge been available to so many people. But knowledge does not equate with wisdom. As knowledgeable as we are, nations still cannot seem to settle their disputes without resort to warfare. Our agricultural ability has grown exponentially over the last several decades-yet so has starvation and the growing gap between the few very rich and the many poor. I think James is onto something here when he warns us that all the knowledge, understanding and technological expertise in the world is useless where hearts are driven by jealousy and selfish ambition. Vs. 3:14. Such wisdom, James points out, is actually demonic. Vs. 3:15.
James goes on to point out that wisdom is shaped not so much by what you know as by what you desire. “What causes wars, and what causes fightings among you? Is it not your passions that are at war in your members?” Vs. 4:1. If your desires are selfish, knowledge will only make your selfish ambitions more deadly and destructive. If your desires are for God and for God’s kingdom, your knowledge will be placed in the service of peacemaking, mercy and reasonableness. Vs. 3:17. So James urges us to “draw near to God” because you are shaped by what you love. Vs. 4:8
Once again, I find inscrutable the minds of the lectionary police who feel a need to censor the biblical writers. I am not convinced that these few verses, James 4:4-6, and the second half of verse 8 were omitted merely to save space. I suspect that, being children of the 1960s, the makers of the lectionary fear James’ declaration that friendship with the world amounts to adultery against our baptismal covenant might lead us astray into an other-worldly piety and render us unable to recognize how very important it is to hold candlelight vigils, march with signs around the post office and attend rallies supporting or opposing one thing or another. I do not believe, however, that James’ call here is for withdrawal from the world. It is rather a question of who one will befriend. Friendship, James realizes, is perhaps the most formative force in our lives. In John’s gospel, Jesus insisted on referring to his disciples as friends. John 15:14-15. Their characters are to be formed by their friendship with Jesus. The world, though loved by God and the object of God’s redemptive purpose, is nonetheless in rebellion against God. It is dominated by “principalities and powers” that exercise imperial domination. Friendship with the world is therefore resistance to God.
“The term ‘world’ always has a negative meaning in James. It never has the neutral sense of the arena of human activity or positive sense of God’s creation. In 3:6, James describes the tongue as the ‘world of wickedness’ among the body’s members. In 2:5 James contrasts those who are ‘poor with reference to the world’ to those who are ‘rich in faith.’ This text is important for signaling the meaning of ‘world’ as a system of value or measurement: those who in the value system of the world are poor are, within the value system of faith, rich. In 1:27, James again speaks of ‘pure religion in the eyes of God’ (para to theo) as one that ‘keeps oneself unstained from the world.’ We find, therefore, that ‘world’ stands allied with wickedness and impurity and wealth, but opposed to true religion, faith, and purity. These contrasts are summarized in 4:4 as the opposition between ‘world’ and ‘God.’” Johnson, Luke Timothy, The Letter of James, The Anchor Yale Bible, Vol. 37A (c. 1995 by Yale University) p. 84.
The contrast between friendship with God and friendship with the world is therefore at the heart of James’ preaching. James is not attempting to set forth an ethic or articulate moral principles for general consumption. Rather, he is painting a portrait of countercultural existence for the covenant community gathered around Jesus Christ. In the “world,” “human existence is a zero sum game in a universe of limited resources, a closed system.” Ibid. p. 85. Humans are in perpetual competition leading to violence, domination and exploitation. Faith, however, views everything from the standpoint of “friendship with God.” Like Abraham, faith trusts God’s determination to fulfill God’s covenant promises rather than accepting the seeming limitations on what is possible. Faith knows that the universe is not a closed system, but remains ever open to the generosity of “the Father of lights,” the giver of “every good endowment” and “every perfect gift.” James 1:17.
You cannot possibly miss the irony here. Jesus has been teaching the disciples that he must soon be handed over to the powers of Rome that will kill him. And this is not just a passing remark. It is clear from the context that Jesus has been making this point with his disciples throughout his journey through Galilee. In fact, that was the point of the journey: to avoid public attention and the distraction it brings so that Jesus could focus with his disciples on the meaning of his mission. At the end of this day of heavy instruction, Jesus asks his disciples what they had been discussing among themselves along the way. If I had been in Jesus’ place, I might have expected the disciples to respond that they had been discussing all that they had heard him say that day. I would have expected the disciples to ask Jesus why he was going to Jerusalem, what he expected to accomplish by getting himself arrested, what purpose his death would serve and what did he mean by “rising again.” But the disciples have been reflecting on something else altogether. They have been arguing over who is to be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. This is rather like the teacher who spends a morning painstakingly explaining long division to her class, asks them for their questions and receives only one response: “Is it time for recess yet?”
Jesus responds with far more patience than I think I would have had under the circumstances. He takes a child in his arms and says, “You want to be great? I will show you great.” Now it is critical not to confuse this passage with others where Jesus uses the child as an example of faithfulness and urges his disciples to become as children. That is not the point here. Greatness is demonstrated by receiving the child. Understand that child care was considered women’s work then much as it is today in most quarters, despite the trend toward greater shared responsibility between spouses. Even today, greatness is seldom demonstrated through babysitting. Yet Jesus seems to place a high priority on children. In one of the very few instances where Jesus threatens hell fire, he directs his admonition against persons who cause one of his “little ones” to stumble. Despite his handlers’ efforts to keep Jesus on message with the crowds, Jesus insists on taking time to bless infants. Children are a priority for Jesus. There is no greater task than to care for a child.
As I point out above, our culture’s attitude toward children is ambivalent to say the least. On the one hand we love them, dote over them and find them irresistibly adorable. Parents spoil and frequently shower children with money or spend money for them endlessly. Not surprisingly, then, billions of dollars are spent by commercial interests on marketing to children. At the other end of the extreme, there are 1.6 million homeless children in the United States according to the National Center on Family Homelessness. Their share of the so-called safety net is always the most likely candidate for the cutting floor when it comes time to balance the budget. Unlike other demographic groups in our society, kids don’t vote and they don’t have super pacs to lobby for them.
The welfare of children has always been a high priority of the church. The first orphanages were established by the church in the first century. Before that time, orphaned children without responsible relatives were doomed to a life of begging, thievery or prostitution. This work of caring for children continues to be a priority for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), which recently provided nearly $400,000 in humanitarian assistance to help support ELCA partners serving the thousands of unaccompanied minors coming to the United States from countries in Central America.
One beneficiary of these funds is Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS). LIRS works with the U.S. Office of Refugee Settlement to help place unaccompanied children in foster care. The ELCA funds provide for planning among Lutheran partners in the United States and Central America, training materials for potential foster families, the development of welcome centers offering hospitality and support to families and others released from immigration detention centers, advocacy and strategic communications and national coordination.
While relief efforts like these are vitally important, they do not address the root causes of child oppression such as wealth inequality, unrestrained corporate greed, racism, militarism and nationalism. As long as these forces continue to undermine the stability of families and communities essential to the wellbeing of children, we cannot hope to end the scourge of global, systemic child abuse.